Published in The Jerusalem Post on October 6, 2002
Tomorrow, the 2003 Israeli national elections go into high gear. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faces-off against former Prime Minister Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu in a crucial test of strength within Likud Party ranks.
Bibi is making a mistake by challenging Sharon. The national good mandates that Netanyahu support Sharon’s re-election and that Bibi run for election to the Knesset as Sharon’s deputy!
This is Netanyahu’s chance to make a real difference in Israeli politics. By announcing an end to his 2003 leadership challenge against Sharon, Netanyahu would be doing the right thing for himself; for the Likud; for Israeli politics; and most of all, for the country.
More than 140,000 Likud members will go the polls tomorrow to elect a new party Central Committee. The Committee, in turn, next year will choose Likud’s candidate for Prime Minister and the party’s slate of candidates for Knesset. Shielded thus far from much press attention by the intense focus on the impending U.S. war with Iraq, the internal Likud politicking is being fought-out both intensely and fiercely.
Ask yourself: why is it that that Netanyahu has stood outside government for the past two years, instead of adding his political strengths, diplomatic weight, and excellent communication skills to the national battle of survival against the Palestinians? Because he wants to be, once again, number one — Prime Minister — instead of Sharon.
Indeed, I think it probable that Netanyahu one day *will* serve again as Prime Minister. But why does it have to be now, and why should that preclude Bibi’s service, for as a while, as number two? There is no shame in being the foreign or defense or finance minister of the State of Israel!
On the contrary: serving as cabinet minister in someone else’s government would be a very healthy thing for Binyamin Netanyahu! The experience could usefully serve to impress upon Bibi the need to be more sensitive to the political needs and personal feelings of ministers who serve under a Prime Minister. In this regard, Bibi failed in his first term as PM. Here’s the chance to show us that his interpersonal relations skills have improved – as he himself claims!
This would also be an opportunity for Bibi to get some more hands-on senior-level executive experience in foreign and defense affairs; he might even, humbly, learn a thing or two from Sharon.
It’s obvious that such a move would be good for the Likud. A bruising, nasty and costly leadership battle would be avoided. Internal unity would solidify Likud’s position as *the* mainstream, governing party in Israel, and strengthen its draw at the polls. Sharon and Bibi, working in tandem, would make a right-wing “dream team”.
But that’s not all. Israeli politics is at an all-time nadir. By and large, the public views our politicians as cynical, self-serving, egotistic, opportunistic and shallow – and I’m being generous! As a result, people in this country are starving, I think, for true, altruistic national leadership. Politicians who place the national good — at least the good of their own political platform and ideological worldview — ahead of their own!
Imagine what a shot of confidence our political system would get were Netanyahu to do the unheard of — and cooperate with a political rival (of the same ideological ilk!) to advance the greater ideological and/or party good! What a revolution that would be!
One need to look no farther than the ideologically-neutral Labor Party fracas last week – where Twiddly Dum and Twiddly Dee shamelessly faced-off like tag-team wrestlers against Twiddly Do for no other reason than naked political ambition – to know that voters undoubtedly would reward Netanyahu’s selfless sacrifice. After all, Netanyahu is only 54. He’ll easily be fine prime ministerial material again at 58. That’s not old at all by Israeli or Western standards.
Oh yes. There is one other reason why Bibi should bite the bullet and postpone his leadership challenge to Sharon. It will be best for Israel.
Sharon is doing a decent job as prime minister. After two years of “Arafat’s War” (that’s my suggested name for this prolonged stage of the Arab-Israel conflict), most Israelis understand that peace is not around the corner. To provide for our own security, we have to balance between complete “re-occupation” of the territories, international constraints, and various national considerations (economic, political, social, etc).
While I would prefer that Sharon act even more forcefully, there is no evidence to suggest that Netanyahu would manage the situation better. Certainly, he has not yet articulated realistic policy alternatives. Sharon is juggling the balls with skill, and drawing support from across all sectors of Israeli society – something which Bibi, at present, is clearly unable to do.
To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, I say to Bibi: Ask not what your country (or party) can do for you; ask, what you can do (best, right now) for your country!